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  1. Life & Culture

USF student recounts ‘shopping while Black’ at Disney World

A Disney fan recounts shopping experiences that he says every Black person has experienced: being trailed in a store.
Jaalin Harvey, 24, at Walt Disney World. He's been an annual passholder since he was in seventh grade.
Jaalin Harvey, 24, at Walt Disney World. He's been an annual passholder since he was in seventh grade. [ Jaalin Harvey ]
Published Apr. 6
Updated Apr. 6

Jaalin Harvey said he has no doubt every Black person has a story like his.

While shopping at Walt Disney World, he suddenly had that feeling, a “spidey sense,” that eyes were on him. If he moved to a different aisle, a “big guy” down the way moved, too. He switched aisles again, and the “big guy” followed. Harvey caught the eye of a worker and they looked away quickly.

Harvey, 24, is a University of South Florida student who lives in Seffner. In February, he recounted two upsetting encounters at Walt Disney World for an essay he posted on his Twitter account @TCJaalin.

He posted it during Black History Month, “because it is the only time people seem to care.”

It’s a topic that is both everyday and overlooked, and studies have shown that Black people internalize this with coping skills that can have negative health reactions.

Harvey remains a Disney fan, and has been an annual passholder since he was in seventh grade. He loves everything about the parks, especially Epcot with its message of celebrating cultures around the world. But he felt compelled to share his stories.

One of the most jarring was last December, when he was Christmas shopping in Disney Springs.

He could feel the eyes of the workers glued to him when he walked into a shop. It made him uncomfortable, so he left the store and strolled to the nearby pin gazebo. He again felt like the workers, who are called “cast members” at Disney, were on high alert, watching his every move.

“How do I know the cast member was looking at me? Because as soon as I looked at him his eyes shifted off me in a microsecond. I had caught him,” Harvey said.

He got anxious and felt a panic attack coming on. He realized if he got angry or spoke up, things could escalate quickly. He envisioned security being called. He could be arrested. He could be killed. All of this was swirling in his head as he tried to stay calm and exit the shop as quietly as possible.

The experience is universal in Black culture and nearly invisible among whites, Harvey said. His post touched a nerve. Hundreds of comments offered apologies and support, while others questioned whether he was being overly sensitive.

What he hoped to convey in his essay, he said, is how upsetting the experience is.

Professor David Ponton III, a historian who teaches in the school of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida, has studied the consequences of segregation and the criminalization of racialized spaces. He said “shopping while Black” may seem like a little thing, but it isn’t minor to the person targeted.

“We are trained to give the other actors the benefit of the doubt because it is almost like the worst thing in the world is to accuse someone of racial discrimination,” Ponton said. “For Black people, over the course of our lifetimes, people develop coping skills and mechanisms to navigate through the workplace, social scenes and the public sector with the aim of putting others at ease.”

David Ponton III is an assistant professor in the school of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida.
David Ponton III is an assistant professor in the school of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida. [ USF ]

It’s not an uncommon story. In 2014, Macy’s agreed to pay a $650,000 settlement over claims it had racially profiled customers. That same year, Barneys agreed to a $250,000 settlement over a similar claim. Oprah Winfrey said she was refused service at the Hermes store in Paris, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted an incident when she was shown cheap jewelry by a store clerk rather than the “better earrings” she had asked for.

Researchers describe the cause of racial profiling as “subconscious racism.”

Jaalin Harvey, 24, in the Star Wars land at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando.
Jaalin Harvey, 24, in the Star Wars land at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando. [ Jaalin Harvey ]

A 2012 review of studies published in The Journal of Behavioral Medicine called “Coping With Racism” looked at the side effects of the coping methods minority group members turn to when experiencing racism. They ranged from acceptance that this is just how society functions, to anger, to seeking out social support. But they each had downsides for the mental and physical health of the person who has to learn to control their anger or feel ostracized. Depression and elevated blood pressure were common.

“No coping strategy has emerged as a clearly successful strategy for offsetting the mental or physical health impacts of racism. Instead, each approach has some demonstrated strengths, but also considerable side effects or limitations,” the study’s authors concluded.

After Harvey posted his essay on Twitter, Disney responded to him with an apologetic email from Shane Hayes of the company’s Guest Experience Services. Hayes talked of the company’s deep commitment to diversity and said they have “zero tolerance” for such behavior.

“I have shared your message with the appropriate leadership teams so that they can take the necessary steps to ensure this is addressed. Should you ever encounter a Cast Member or situation that does not meet our commitment, I encourage you to request to speak with their leader or our guest relations team so that we can take swift actions at that time,” Hayes wrote.

He then ended the email with: “Walt Disney once said, ‘If nothing changed, there’d be no butterflies.’ The passion that is received for the Disney brand from guests, like you, inspires us to constantly evolve our service and offerings as we search for butterflies just like Walt Disney did. We are proud to tell diverse and inclusive stories that matter and are a reflection of us but that doesn’t mean our work is done.”

Harvey appreciated the response, but said it felt a little like a form letter.

Ponton says that as a researcher and also a teacher he is torn on what to advise his students.

“On a theoretical level I would want to say yes speak up, but I also share his fear because it can be seen as an act of aggression coming from a Black man,” Ponton said. “It could turn into a whole host of violence against a person. There’s also no guarantee that the manager that I would speak to would be in any way amenable to what I have to say.”